China blocks 500 ventilators heading to São Paulo

China blocks 500 ventilators heading to São Paulo
Photo: Heudes Regis/SEI

Last week, the São Paulo state government authorized a USD 100-million purchase of 3,000 ventilators from China. But Chinese authorities have blocked the first 500-unit shipment at the Beijing Airport, following a new decree made by the Chinese government limiting the number of units allowed to enter exporting planes to 150 — in order for China to expedite shipments of medical goods to multiple countries at the same time.

The shipping debacle has raised many red flags for the São Paulo state government — since it happened precisely when the need for increasing the number of intensive care units is most urgent. São Paulo officials have reportedly managed to get the shipment of the first 150 units greenlit — but are still pushing for a “war effort” in order to obtain the remaining 2,850 units.

This type of dilemma could be mediated by the federal government, but São Paulo Governor João Doria and President Jair Bolsonaro have become sworn enemies in recent months. To further complicate matters, the Bolsonaro administration has repeatedly thrown jabs at China since the beginning of the crisis — including racist tweets from the Education Minister —, which has made any effort to negotiate special exporting conditions all the more difficult.

Our own Lucas Berti explained yesterday how the state of São Paulo can avoid the collapse of its healthcare system by unifying the private and public networks. However, social isolation remains the primary strategy for flattening the infection curve.

Not the first

With multiple countries facing shortages of medical inputs, governments have engaged in a cut-throat competition for products such as ventilators. This has even resulted in conflicts between federal and state governments within Brazil. In April, the state of Maranhão had to pull a ruse — by sending the equipment via Ethiopia — to ensure it arrived at its final destination in the state capital of São Luis. Two previous attempts to purchase materials had been intercepted by higher-bidding Germans and North Americans, while another was blocked by Brazil’s federal government, which requested the ventilators for national use. 

Controversial purchase

From the start, the contract raised many eyebrows. While Brazil’s state of emergency gives administrations room to bypass some of the normal public bidding rules, it does not give them total carte blanche. State prosecutors were curious about the high price of the ventilators (overpricing is a classic way to siphon public money). Under normal circumstances, the ventilators would cost up to ten times less, but the state of São Paulo says that the sheer demand for the product has caused prices to skyrocket.

In response to public criticism, Mr. Doria created an Emergency Accountability Office to audit public spending during the Covid-19 pandemic.